- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 25, 2003

Tom Baerwald of Alexandria has walked about 5,000 miles in the past five years and swears by the mental and physical benefits of the exercise. "It's good for the mind and body, and it's the only form of exercise I've been able to stick with as an adult," says Mr. Baerwald, who is the president of Northern Virginia Volksmarchers, a branch of the nationwide American Volkssport Association, which promotes noncompetitive walking and organizes 3,000 walks annually in the United States.
Simply put, walking is the best exercise in the world, says Mr. Baerwald, who attributes his having shed 30 pounds to walking.
Former racewalker and walking advocate Mark Fenton agrees.
To maximize the health benefits, however, a walker needs to take into account pace, distance, form (or technique) and shoes, says Mr. Fenton, author of "The Complete Guide to Walking for Health, Weight Loss and Fitness."
Many walkers need to pick up the pace, he says, to reap real health benefits, which include reducing the risk of heart disease, hypertension and symptoms of anxiety as well as building healthy bones, muscles and joints and losing or maintaining a healthy weight.
"We're not talking about window-shopping here," he says. "We're talking about purposeful walking, at least three miles an hour. This is a good 'health pace' that's what the surgeon general recommends."
A surgeon general's report from 1996 says Americans should exercise moderately, such as swimming or walking briskly, for 30 minutes a day.
Pace and duration
A person who engages in the moderate level of walking 120 steps a minute, or about three miles an hour, and weighs 150 pounds burns about 250 to 300 calories an hour (compared to 60 calories an hour when inactive) or up to 150 calories in 30 minutes, Mr. Fenton says.
At 30 minutes a day, seven days a week at that pace, which Mr. Fenton calls the "health pace," a 150-pound person burns about 1,000 calories a week.
At the next level of walking, which Mr. Fenton calls a "weight-loss pace," 135 steps a minute or four miles an hour, a 150-pound person burns 350 to 400 calories per hour. At 30 minutes a day, that translates into 1,400 calories a week.
At the level of walking that Mr. Fenton calls a "fitness pace," 150 steps a minute or 4.5 miles per hour, a 150-pound person burns 450 to 500 calories per hour. At 30 minutes a day, that translates into 1,750 calories a week.
"This is the right level for people who say, 'I want the leanness, and I want to be more aerobically fit,'" Mr. Fenton says.
Walking on a treadmill gives about the same health benefits as walking outside, provided the surface is flat in both instances, Mr. Fenton says.
The fitness level of walking is almost as effective as a slow jog.
Nevertheless, a faster runner still gets more bang for the buck. The runner may be able to go twice as far as the walker in a half-hour, burning more calories and building more muscle during that time, says Dr. Amanda Weiss Kelly, medical director of sports medicine at Children's Hospital in Northwest.
"That's why it's important to get a certain amount of time in when you walk," Dr. Kelly says. "A half an hour a day, several times a week, really is a minimum. I like to see about an hour each time."
There are walkers who reach the exact same physical fitness as runners. When Mr. Fenton was a world-class racewalker, he metabolized oxygen as well as a marathoner, meaning that his racewalking was as strenuous as marathon running.
However, that entails walking at a pace of about 7.5 minutes per mile, a respectable running pace.
"So you can certainly get very fit as a racewalker," Mr. Fenton says. "It's just that people often compare fast runners and slow walkers, which isn't really fair."
Technique and equipment
Though pace and duration are the most important variables in determining health benefits in terms of muscle building and weight loss, technique is important for joint health and posture, Mr. Fenton says.
He teaches walkers four principles of good form.
First, it's important to stand tall, chest forward and eyes on the horizon. Second, when increasing the pace, think quicker rather than longer steps. With a longer stride, the walker tends to tilt the hip more, which can cause injuries.
Third, bend the arms at 90 degrees at the elbow, which means that the hands are swinging at waist level. Finally, push off on your toes (imagine the person behind you seeing your sole at each push-off) which will propel you forward faster than if you push off of a flat foot.
In addition to form, shoes are important to allow for the best results, Mr. Fenton says.
"There is usually a separate section for walking shoes in the stores," he says. "Basically, walking shoes are more flexible in the front than running shoes. They also have more of a rounded heel."
This rounded heel is to accommodate the heel-to-toe rolling motion of the foot, which is unique to walking.
They also don't have to be quite as padded as running shoes because the impact on your feet when walking is much lighter.
A runner's feet have to withstand a lot more impact than a walker's: The impact on a runner's feet is three times the person's weight (i.e. 450 pounds if the runner weighs 150 pounds), while a walker's feet get away with one to 1 times his or her weight (i.e. 150 to 225 pounds if the walker weighs 150 pounds).
Aside from good shoes, walking is very light on the "required equipment" side.
A pedometer, which can cost as little as $20, can help keep track of the number of steps per minute.
Both Dr. Kelly and Mr. Fenton disapprove of walking with weights to increase calorie burning and muscle building.
"I really don't like weights on the ankles," Dr. Kelly says. "The weights alter the mechanics of your knee as well as your stride, which can lead to injuries," she says.
The light, often 3-pound hand weights that some walkers use are OK, she says, but Mr. Fenton questions whether they really are effective.
"I think they're too light to make any real difference," Mr. Fenton says. "Sure, do weights, too. We know that it's important from a bone-density standpoint and it boosts metabolism but do the weight training after your walk."
If ankle and hand-held weights are avoided, a walker is very unlikely as opposed to a runner to get injured.
"I've never seen anyone with a stress fracture from walking," Dr. Kelly says.
A stress fracture is an overuse injury that occurs when the body isn't given enough time to build fresh new bone after strenuous exercise. A person who works out every day can risk getting "fatigued" bones, which make them more prone to fractures.
The walking injuries Mr. Fenton knows of are inflammation of the tibia interior (shin splints) and overuse injuries, such as tendinitis in the knee and tightness in the back.
The first happens if the muscles on the front of the lower leg aren't developed enough, and the latter happens only to walkers who walk 90 miles or more a week, he says.
Anyone can do it
As with all exercise programs, a warm up and a cool down, including stretching. are advisable, Mr. Fenton says.
Warm up by walking at a slower, comfortable pace.
After the walk, Mr. Fenton suggests five minutes of cool down, again slowing down, and then three or four stretches, targeting the thigh, calf, hamstring and lower back.
Being such a low-cost, low-injury, easy and natural activity, walking is the most popular type of exercise among Americans, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. The second most popular type of exercise is gardening.
"Walking is absolutely for everyone. If you haven't done anything since junior high class, you can start off with a five-minute walk around the block." Mr. Fenton says. "There is nothing intimidating about walking. … Walking can change lives. It can be an anchor for you."
It is for Mr. Baerwald.
"If I don't walk, I get very lethargic and anxious," he says. "I find great peace of mind when I'm walking."

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